Launching a career in peacebuilding

Wendy and John Paul Lederach

by John Paul Lederach (pictured above with his wife, Wendy)
from Peacebuilding in Community Colleges: A Teaching Resource (2013, United States Institute of Peace)

I attended Hesston College in the school year of 1973-75. In those days, we referred to it as a “junior college,” but I don’t think there was anything junior about it. At the time, it would not have occurred to me that going to Hesston was anything less or more than heading off to the next level of school. Mostly it was independence. Well, sort of – I grew up in Hesston, Kansas, a town that has mostly maintained a population of about three thousand people and whose primary industries focus on agriculture and farming in this part of the American central plains. I did not have far to go from home to my dorm room. My parents taught at Hesston College, and we lived at the edge of campus. But the journey in those first years of college-level studies opened a world of possibility I would never have imagined or expected when I first started.

Hesston College’s theme, displayed prominently in brochures and banners across the campus, states, “Start here, go everywhere.” This was certainly my experience.

I have often wondered what created this opening in the formative years of my career. Having now taught extensively in universities and having done a lot of adult education in different parts of the world, I find two things to be true about learning.

First, I have come to believe that every individual learner finds her- or himself on a unique journey of awareness, something both below and beyond knowledge. Paulo Freire called this “conscientization,” which translates as becoming cognizant of self in the world. This kind of awareness sparks the imagination about who I am, what I know and can learn, what is happening around me, and how I can respond. It links trust in self and critical understanding with action. For most of us, experience with this kind of insight comes in doses and moments – from elementary school, when we learn to read our first words and have this sense of empowerment, to the impact of a particular book that “opens” our eyes, to perhaps a classroom discussion when we say something we didn’t even know we knew. The moment constitutes an epiphany with a life-changing quality. We emerge from these moments with eyes and hearts that see the worlds within and around us differently.

Second, I believe that this unique journey poses a challenge for education. As educators, we cannot control or predict when the epiphany moments will emerge. It is quite possible for a student to dominate the content of any topic and not have an epiphany. And it is quite possible for a student not to understand the content fully or even adequately and yet have an epiphany. This thing I call “epiphany” is not about the more visible “head” side of education. It is about the heart’s way, the powerful nexus that links heart, head and spirit.

For educators, the two ingredients that have the greatest potential to create the environment for the heart’s way to open are authenticity and trust. We may teach in a thousand different ways and styles – from lectures to lab experiments – but when, as educators, we share a sense of our passion and we are present as authentic people, something transformative happens.

On the other side of this relationship, we find learners, people seeking to understand and grow. What we may forget too readily is that learning requires vulnerability. As learners, we constantly must be at the edge of what we know and have experienced. By definition, learning contains what anthropologists call a liminal experience – to live in the space between the known and the yet to be. As learners, we must venture into the place not yet known. What a good educator will provide is the encouragement to venture toward the edge and the safety net of trusting that the world does not end if you fall. Trust creates a platform. Try. If you fall short – and we all have – get up and try again. This is the core of learning. We can’t do it for you, but we will be here with you.

Hesston College opened my heart’s way. I had my first adult epiphanies on this campus of some five hundred students. Looking back, I can see several keys.

Keys: Why Hesston College Made a Difference

The first key had mostly to do with the accessibility, responsiveness and passions of my professors. For the most part, classes were small and intimate. I remember quite a few of them in my freshman year that took up topics that engaged me in new ways. I found consistently that whenever I really wanted to talk more about something it was easy to find teachers and have a conversation.

To be honest, I was in a period of my development where I had lots of questions – about faith, politics, the “system,” power and ethics. I can remember questioning about half of what I was required to read or learn. While Hesston College comes from a Christian, Mennonite tradition and espouses those values (a tradition that I share and that can, of course, be quite sectarian in its view of faith and engagement of the world), I never found narrow-minded or rigid professors. But I did find people who, while they had questions, were comfortable in their own skins and who never saw the pursuit and inquiry of truth as contradictory with the expression of their faith, even if some of the inquiries radically questioned faith itself. I can, in fact, remember the class one late morning when, in a round of discussions that must have bordered on the radical, the professor asked, “What does the word ‘radical’ mean?” Most quick responses circled around worlds such as “revolution” and “extreme.” one of my classmates was from Argentina, with Spanish as his native tongue. He said quite simply, “The Latin origin of the word ‘radical’ is ‘root.’ It means to go deep, to get to the root, the essence of something.” I will never forget the epiphany. I wished I spoke Spanish. I wished I had some notion of Latin. And I suddenly had the whole of a different inquiry before me: how do we get to the root, the essence of things?

My professors were passionate about their topics. That passion came in many forms, but I experienced it by sensing their excitement about something they were teaching. They were not just thinking about it; they were doing it. I suppose this comes with the Mennonite ethos. Where i grew up, if you have a barn full of manure, you don’t much sit around and discuss the nature and origins of manure – you get a pitchfork and clean it up. The same ethos seemed true of the topics covered in my early requirements. Most of my profs were actively engaged in doing something in the areas they taught.

I had one professor whose life was art and clay. I was so inspired by his passion for art, I almost became a potter – in fact, I may yet go back to that someday. His care for craft, his eye for form, and his engagement of art remained with me for a lifetime. I had another, much older professor who taught English and literature. She had all the features of my grandmother from Pennsylvania: hair pulled back in a tight bun and classic Mennonite dress. She loved Shakespeare. I approached the class as a requirement, with a “need to survive” and very low expectations. In our first session, she spontaneously broke into Shakespeare, a long section recited without hesitation. I was transfixed, and the room suddenly seemed filled with something transcendent. I will never forget the moment. Epiphany. And I will not forget, eight weeks later, reciting a page and a half of Shakespeare by memory, or what I felt seeing her bobbing, approving nod.

A second key in my development emerged around courses that engaged the theology and practice of peace. The Mennonite, considered one of the historic peace churches, come from a long tradition of pacifism. By osmosis and exposure, I would have assumed for many of my early years that our theology was good, understood and clear. But it was never my own until I emerged from the first two formative years at Hesston College.

The curriculum did not have a speciality degree in the area of peace studies, though certainly courses and intensive seminars were offered that gave me an introduction to aspects of the wider field. But I consistently found that my required classes engaged questions related to social change, faith and the ethics of peace and violence. For the first time, I interacted with people who felt passionate about these topics, with a passion not just to study it but to do something about it, and opportunities arose. In the course of two years through the specialized intensive weekends, I met and spent time with people involved in nonviolent direct action to end the Vietnam war and in civil disobedience to end the production of nuclear weapons, and with theologians who espoused the way of traditional nonresistance and separateness, who would view contemporary nonviolence as a form of political engagement to be held at arm’s length. The range of exposure required and permitted me to take my first steps in forming my own understanding.

A third key emerged around pedagogical innovation. This small campus experimented with learning methods in a variety of ways. We had access to a January term that carried us from the Midwest to parts unknown. We had intensive seminar weekends that would bring in the most unexpected visitors and lecturers. We had class assignments in the general education sequence, known at the time as Foundation Studies, that required us to read, discuss and do. Take the topic of empathy, for example. We were asked to do something that would have us experience the reality of another person’s life different from our own. Some blindfolded themselves for a day. Others spent time with people from an entirely different language or ethnic group. My roommate and I decided we would see what it was like to be broke and destitute. We agreed to take one dollar each and hitchhike to Oklahoma City and back. I don’t think this is what our professors had in mind, but we thought it best not to ask permission. It took us more days than expected. We slept under bridges, panhandled for food, and generally “Jack Kerouac-ed” our way home. I think it served us well. The one thing I will not forget is a waitress on the outskirts of Oklahoma City who gave us a full breakfast out of her pocket money when she saw us devour the single order of toast we could afford. Even today when I tip, especially in small restaurants with people who look as though they may well be working their “second job,” I always try to leave more than required. Generosity does pay forward.

In January 1974, I participated in a month-long class in the Middle East, traveling through Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, Palestine and Israel. The exposure to refugee campus the edges of war, and the challenges of conflict entered my life for the first time. A year later, January 1975, I spent a month in the inner city of Washington, D.C. We didn’t immerse ourselves in the power of politics of the Capitol. We were dropped into the life of poor communities and racial divides. My education in those experiences went from head to heart. I felt something calling and pulling. The pursuit of this call, which, at the time, I thought should carry me back to the Middle East, led to a hiatus – leaving my academic career for three years to do voluntary service abroad. I never did make it back to the Middle East, but the passion sparked in those J-term exposures led me to learn three languages and pursue a vocation dedicated to finding better ways to respond to conflict, social division and violence. By the time I came back to finish my undergraduate degree, it was clear that I wanted to focus on peace and conflict studies. Academic degree programs on these topics were not easy to find in the 1970s. And questions abounded about what exactly you will do with a peace studies degree, but the passion sparked early on at Hesston College never left me with a doubt.

Final Reflections

I am writing this short chapter in Nepal. The peace process that ended a ten-year civil war here is reaching yet another landmark crisis as we barrel down the calendar toward May 28, 2011, the deadline set for writing a constitution and completing the integration of combatants. Neither commitment has been accomplished. It will be a week of intensive negotiations. This week again – the thirtieth visit I have made to Nepal over the past eight years – I recognize how easily I could say, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” Yet I carry part of Kansas with me. It will soon be forty years since I entered Hesston College, but it has been present at nearly every stage. I eventually completed an undergraduate degree in peace studies and history and a PhD in sociology. I have prepared myself as a mediator and facilitator. I have written twenty-some books and manuals on peacebuilding. I now teach at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and continue to support Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. I have conducted training workshops on conflict and peacebuilding in more than thirty countries. This week in Nepal, I will sit with high-level politicians, trying to find a way through their disagreements, and I will sit with grassroots communities working on natural resource conflicts over water, forests and land. It’s my daily bread.

I think it accurate to say it all started at Hesston College. I learned simple lessons from my professors that go beyond the materials, books and classes from those years.

Follow your passions.
Trust your questions.
Believe the power of conversations.
Start here, go everywhere.